GOP puts hopes on session fallout

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County Republicans might have lost their battle to block tax increases in the recent special session of the General Assembly, but they believe the political fallout will help them regain lost ground in the next statewide elections.

Their proposal to cut state spending without any tax increases to make up a projected $1.7 billion revenue shortfall next year was rejected by most Democrats, who dominate in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, legislators approved increasing the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and expanding it to cover computer services; higher vehicle titling fees; and income tax changes that would raise rates for high-income residents.

What will the political impact be in 2010?

"Tremendous," said state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the GOP Senate whip in Annapolis who represents western Howard and southern Carroll counties.

"I just think that anybody who is running against any individuals who voted for the tax increase or in the Senate opposed a filibuster are going to be held accountable," Kittleman said. "Once they are reminded, the voters will hopefully realize those individuals didn't represent them well."

One Republican target, Democratic state Sen. James N. Robey, held a small fundraiser last week at a Columbia restaurant and said he fully expects to run for re-election, regardless of attacks by tax critics.

"I thought a lot about that" during the special session, Robey said, especially as, day after day, his office received calls and e-mails from angry people demanding that state taxes not go up.

"I was not elected to be re-elected; I was elected to do a job," Robey said as he greeted about 65 guests at the $50-a-ticket affair.

He said he expects criticism but defended the end product as a "pretty decent package," even though he acknowledged having to "swallow hard" a few times in approving portions of it.

By 2010, "people will realize the benefits," Robey said. "They can scream all they want about taxes, but it's more than that."

There will be $550 million in budget cuts, a fund established to restore the Chesapeake Bay, expanded medical insurance and possible slot machine gambling to recapture Maryland money going to neighboring states, if voters approve, he pointed out.

"We'll take the heat," he told his supporters. "We went down there and did what had to be done to fix the state's fiscal policies."

One of those munching Asian food and listening was Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a Democrat who represents Elkridge, parts of Ellicott City and much of southwestern Baltimore County. DeBoy voted with Republicans against the tax package.

"I just didn't think raising taxes - with a recession on the horizon, milk at $4 a gallon and gas at $3 a gallon - was the way to go," DeBoy said. He also opposed higher corporate taxes in the income tax package, he said.

Contrasted with state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer's full support for the tax package and Del. James E. Malone Jr.'s partial support, DeBoy's votes show that the three district Democrats don't always follow party dictates, he said. Malone supported the income tax changes but not the sales tax increase.

"It shows independence of all of us," DeBoy said.

Kasemeyer, who was not at the fundraiser, acknowledged that his re-election might be more difficult in the more conservative portions of his district.

"You hope you have an opportunity to explain to people and they'll see that what was done will not damage them to a great extent," he said. "In these kinds of situations, you have to do what you think is right."

Robey has been attacked before for raising taxes, and it didn't seem to hurt him. As Howard County executive in 2003, he and the Democratic majority on the County Council pushed through a major income tax increase that budget officials said would cost a family with the median Howard income of $83,100 at the time $521 a year more.

Despite that, Democrats prospered politically last year, with Robey unseating Sandra B. Schrader, a moderate Republican state senator, and with former council members Ken Ulman winning the county executive's seat and Guy Guzzone taking a seat in the House of Delegates. Democrats hold four of the five council seats and control the county's legislative contingent in Annapolis - both in the House and Senate.

Kittleman attributes that to the unpopular Bush administration, something that he feels is unlikely to repeat in three years.

"I can't imagine a national trend against Republicans in 2010 like there was in 2006," he said.

"I got contacted by a lot of Democrats who were upset" about the state tax increases, he said. "I don't think anyone should feel secure."

Divide over highway

Last week in this space, western county Republicans were complaining that too much state transportation money goes for mass transit and not enough for highways, such as widening Route 32 to Interstate 70 and widening I-70.

Advocates for widening say the heavy traffic is overflowing into residential shortcuts, and that a larger, divided highway is the only answer.

A major interchange is under construction on Route 32 at Burntwoods Road, though no money is available for widening the rest of Route 32 in Howard County.

But Barbara Wasserman, who has lived for 16 years about a half-mile from Route 32 near Glenelg, said not everyone wants the two-lane portion of Route 32 widened into a four-lane divided highway, despite the congestion.

"We're all for improving safety," she said, but a divided highway from Clarksville to I-70 would "be horrible. We're concerned about getting a lot more truck traffic," noting the noise and congestion on the road has risen steadily for years.

"They're going to end up destroying that aspect of this part of Howard County that makes it so charming a place to live. We're strongly opposed to it," she said, referring to the "Better Plan for 32" group that is pushing for safety improvements without doubling the number of lanes.

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